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When a Mindfulness Movement is your Legacy
Project Little Warriors is making its impact
By Sydney Kerelo

It’s hard to imagine Camden children practicing warrior poses and breathing exercises without also picturing the charismatic yogi who brought the lessons to their schools. But James Gaddy, known as Mr. Yogi to his young students, died suddenly in late August. His dream to help kids who have known trauma and violence in their young lives is still very much alive.

“While physically, Gaddy is not here with us, we’re going to keep moving forward,” says Marialana Curry, who founded Project Little Warriors with Gaddy. “I am going to take over and lead with everything he taught me and what he would want moving forward, which is love, grace and peace.”

PLW started modestly in 2018. Gaddy taught hour-long yoga classes in 2 Camden schools, which educators credit with helping students perform better in school and cope with personal issues, says Curry. Before the Covid shutdown, PLW had grown dramatically, serving some 500 kids in 7 schools, afterschool and summer programs in South Jersey.

“Covid hit us very hard since outsiders weren’t allowed into schools,” says Curry. “So for 2020 we did a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff and took a pause from being in- person.”

Gaddy, who lived in Oaklyn, died while vacationing near his childhood home in North Carolina. There were no signs of trauma, and the cause of his death is still undetermined.

At the time of his passing, the project was expanding, funded by donation-based classes at yoga studios or private venues and other fundraising efforts.

Gaddy grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the youngest of 5 with a father in and out of prison and a mother who was constantly working. “He entered into the drug game by dealing and being a part of gangs,” says Curry. “He was living that life for a few years because that’s what he thought would bring him purpose, bring him money and bring him success.”

But one day, Gaddy realized that life wasn’t for him. He believed he was destined for something greater, which was when he made the life-altering decision to leave it behind. Shortly after, he moved in with his mother in South Jersey and began selling hearing aids for a corporate business.

But that lifestyle wasn’t for him either.

According to Curry, he started getting into fitness and was offered a job as the head coach and studio manager of Orangetheory Fitness in Cherry Hill.

“That is where he found the most fulfillment,” she says. “We actually met during a spinning class. He came up to me because I had beat him – I didn’t even know we were competing – and we instantly became best friends. We tried our first yoga class together and he absolutely fell in love with it. He walked out and immediately signed up for yoga teacher training.”

Shortly after, a Camden school discovered Gaddy and offered him a volunteer position in one of their classrooms. They wanted to bring fitness and yoga to their students.

“He was a very fit man and the classroom he was asked to teach in was a behaviorally challenging classroom,” says Curry. “They thought bringing in a man with a distinct, fascinating look and one who can provide yoga would help the students engage.”

There was one problem though, Gaddy didn’t know how to teach children, let alone ones with behavioral disabilities, she says. But he still showed up every week. He even purchased journals for all of the students and tried to encourage them to write about their feelings. That ended with all of the pages torn and the books destroyed.

“They had not taken it seriously and everything he had hoped for going into the session went the complete opposite way,” says Curry. “We were on the phone and he was saying, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I’m not going back.’ I was like well, if you don’t then you’re giving up on them just like everybody else has.”

That’s what inspired Gaddy to begin Project Little Warriors, an organization that travels from school to school throughout low-income communities to teach young children tools and resources to help them cope with stress, trauma and behavioral issues and to expose them to mindfulness practices. As it has grown more successful, PLW has expanded to include a variety of teacher and student workshops emphasizing the combination of fitness and mindfulness techniques that can be tailored to kids from preschool to high-school age. PLW also now offers corporate training.

Although Gaddy passed away, his legacy continues on.

Leanne Shine, a Cherry Hill East High school teacher, began her yoga instructor training with Project Little Warriors because of Gaddy.

“Listening to him talk about Project Little Warriors really hit me in the right spot, and I felt that this project was important,” says Shine. “He was so passionate about what they were doing and I felt a real connection with him. I lived in Camden until I was 10 years old, so I know the hardships students go through.”

Shine teaches the mindfulness methods in professional development courses in her district. She has trained more than 25 teachers so far. And last year Curry began the James E. Gaddy Jr. Legacy Scholarship, a fund that awards $1,000 to a student yogi who embodies Gaddy’s spirit.

“We will choose somebody who consistently shows up, who lives, breathes and spreads love, one who gives back and serves,” Curry says. “It doesn’t have to be a high school graduate, it could be a fifth grade student. The money could be used for school supplies or to get groceries for your house. It’s about giving back to the community and to the people, recognizing the positive impact our students have no matter what age.”

January 2022
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